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Her Own Village


One afternoon when cycling among the limestone hills of Derbyshire I
came to an unlovely dreary-looking little village named Chilmorton. It
was an exceptionally hot June day and I was consumed with thirst: never
had I wanted tea so badly. Small gritstone-built houses and cottages of
a somewhat sordid aspect stood on either side of the street, but there
was no shop of any kind and not a living creature could I see. It was
like a village of the dead or sleeping. At the top of the street I came
to the church standing in the middle of its church yard with the
public-house for nearest neighbour. Here there was life. Going in I
found it the most squalid and evil-smelling village pub I had ever
entered. Half a dozen grimy-looking labourers were drinking at the bar,
and the landlord was like them in appearance, with his dirty shirt-
front open to give his patrons a view of his hairy sweating chest. I
asked him to get me tea. "Tea!" he shouted, staring at me as if I had
insulted him; "There's no tea here!" A little frightened at his
aggressive manner I then meekly asked for soda-water, which he gave me,
and it was warm and tasted like a decoction of mouldy straw. After
taking a sip and paying for it I went to look at the church, which I
was astonished to find open.

It was a relief to be in that cool, twilight, not unbeautiful interior
after my day in the burning sun.

After resting and taking a look round I became interested in watching
and listening to the talk of two other visitors who had come in before
me. One was a slim, rather lean brown-skinned woman, still young but
with the incipient crow's-feet, the lines on the forehead, the dusty-
looking dark hair, and other signs of time and toil which almost
invariably appear in the country labourer's wife before she attains to
middle age. She was dressed in a black gown, presumably her best
although it was getting a little rusty. Her companion was a fat, red-
cheeked young girl in a towny costume, a straw hat decorated with
bright flowers and ribbons, and a string of big coloured beads about
her neck.

In a few minutes they went out, and when going by me I had a good look
at the woman's face, for it was turned towards me with an eager
questioning look in her dark eyes and a very friendly smile on her
lips. What was the attraction I suddenly found in that sunburnt face?--
what did it say to me or remind me of?--what did it suggest?

I followed them out to where they were standing talking among the
gravestones, and sitting down on a tomb near them spoke to the woman.
She responded readily enough, apparently pleased to have some one to
talk to, and pretty soon began to tell me the history of their lives.
She told me that Chilmorton was her native place, but that she had been
absent from it many many years. She knew just how many years because
her child was only six months old when she left and was now fourteen
though she looked more. She was such a big girl! Then her man took them
to his native place in Staffordshire, where they had lived ever since.
But their girl didn't live with them now. An aunt, a sister of her
husband, had taken her to the town where she lived, and was having her
taught at a private school. As soon as she left school her aunt hoped
to get her a place in a draper's shop. For a long time past she had
wanted to show her daughter her native place, but had never been able
to manage it because it was so far to come and they didn't have much
money to spend; but now at last she had brought her and was showing her
everything.

Glancing at the girl who stood listening but with no sign of interest
in her face, I remarked that her daughter would perhaps hardly think
the journey had been worth taking.

"Why do you say that?" she quickly demanded.

"Oh well," I replied, "because Chilmorton can't have much to interest a
girl living in a town." Then I foolishly went on to say what I thought
of Chilmorton. The musty taste of that warm soda-water was still in my
mouth and made me use some pretty strong words.

At that she flared up and desired me to know that in spite of what I
thought it Chilmorton was the sweetest, dearest village in England;
that she was born there and hoped to be buried in its churchyard where
her parents were lying, and her grandparents and many others of her
family. She was thirty-six years old now, she said, and would perhaps
live to be an old woman, but it would make her miserable for all the
rest of her life if she thought she would have to lie in the earth at a
distance from Chilmorton.

During this speech I began to think of the soft reply it would now be
necessary for me to make, when, having finished speaking, she called
sharply to her daughter, "Come, we've others to see yet," and, followed
by the girl, walked briskly away without so much as a good-bye, or even
a glance!

Oh you poor foolish woman, thought I; why take it to heart like that!
and I was sorry and laughed a little as I went back down the street. It
was beginning to wake up now! A man in his shirt sleeves and without a
hat, a big angry man, was furiously hunting a rebellious pig all round
a small field adjoining a cottage, trying to corner it; he swore and
shouted, and out of the cottage came a frowsy-looking girl in a ragged
gown with her hair hanging all over her face, to help him with the pig.
A little further on I caught sight of yet another human being, a tall
gaunt old woman in cap and shawl, who came out of a cottage and moved
feebly towards a pile of faggots a few yards from the door. Just as she
got to the pile I passed, and she slowly turned and gazed at me out of
her dim old eyes. Her wrinkled face was the colour of ashes and was
like the face of a corpse, still bearing on it the marks of suffering
endured for many miserable years. And these three were the only
inhabitants I saw on my way down the street.

At the end of the village the street broadened to a clean white road
with high ancient hedgerow elms on either side, their upper branches
meeting and forming a green canopy over it. As soon as I got to the
trees I stopped and dismounted to enjoy the delightful sensation the
shade produced: there out of its power I could best appreciate the sun
shining in splendour on the wide green hilly earth and in the green
translucent foliage above my head. In the upper branches a blackbird
was trolling out his music in his usual careless leisurely manner; when
I stopped under it the singing was suspended for half a minute or so,
then resumed, but in a lower key, which made it seem softer, sweeter,
inexpressibly beautiful.

There are beautiful moments in our converse with nature when all the
avenues by which nature comes to our souls seem one, when hearing and
seeing and smelling and feeling are one sense, when the sweet sound
that falls from a bird, is but the blue of heaven, the green of earth,
and the golden sunshine made audible.

Such a moment was mine, as I stood under the elms listening to the
blackbird. And looking back up the village street I thought of the
woman in the churchyard, her sun-parched eager face, her questioning
eyes and friendly smile: what was the secret of its attraction?--what
did that face say to me or remind me of?--what did it suggest?

Now it was plain enough. She was still a child at heart, in spite of
those marks of time and toil on her countenance, still full of wonder
and delight at this wonderful world of Chilmorton set amidst its
limestone hills, under the wide blue sky--this poor squalid little
village where I couldn't get a cup of tea!

It was the child surviving in her which had attracted and puzzled me;
it does not often shine through the dulling veil of years so brightly.
And as she now appeared to me as a child in heart I could picture her
as a child in years, in her little cotton frock and thin bare legs, a
sunburnt little girl of eight, with the wide-eyed, eager, half-shy,
half-trustful look, asking you, as the child ever asks, what you
think?--what you feel? It was a wonderful world, and the world was the
village, its streets of gritstone houses, the people living in them,
the comedies and tragedies of their lives and deaths, and burials in
the churchyard with grass and flowers to grow over them by-and-by. And
the church;--I think its interior must have seemed vaster, more
beautiful and sublime to her wondering little soul than the greatest
cathedral can be to us. I think that our admiration for the loveliest
blooms--the orchids and roses and chrysanthemums at our great annual
shows--is a poor languid feeling compared to what she experienced at
the sight of any common flower of the field. Best of all perhaps were
the elms at the village end, those mighty rough-barked trees that had
their tops "so close against the sky." And I think that when a
blackbird chanced to sing in the upper branches it was as if some
angelic being had dropped down out of the sky into that green
translucent cloud of leaves, and seeing the child's eager face looking
up had sung a little song of his own celestial country to please her.

W. H. Hudson